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'Friday Night Lights': 'This is the game you're going to talk about'

January 7, 2009 |  5:45 pm

Fnl____12___ One more to go. "Friday Night Lights" fans have been through this before. As the third season of "Friday Night Lights" comes to an end, the season finale faces the distinct possibility of being the final send-off for the series. And with many of this year's principal characters going off to college, this seems, perhaps, a fine time to call it a day.

But after viewing Episodes 12 and 13 of this shortened, 13-episode season of "Friday Night Lights," which wraps Jan. 14 on DirecTV and premieres two days later on NBC, "Friday Night Lights" has put forth its most compelling argument yet that it deserves a fourth season.

Episode 12 is nearly all football, giving us a detailed state championship in which the show expertly highlights the games within the game. And next's week season finale offers a challenging plot twist that provides a tantalizing opportunity to rewrite the series.

But that's jumping ahead.

Season 3 of "Friday Night Lights" got off to a fast start. The show's principals of Eric and Tami Taylor, portrayed by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, opened the season having to adjust to a new power dynamic, and "Friday Night Lights" handled it with its expected grace. The season's first four episodes, in particular, were strong, with Eric having to reinstate some confidence in the departing Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles), and Tami taking on all of Dillon, Texas, in a battle over academic and athletic funding.

There were some weak spots that followed. The continued downfall of Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) makes him TV's most lovable villain, but some of the relationship dramas grew tired. Little was done with Buddy's daughter, Lyla (Minka Kelly), especially in comparison with her excellent born-again plot in Season 2, and her on-again/off-again relations with Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) was predictably rocky and lacked any real tension.

"Friday Night Lights" welcomed a terrific newcomer in the lesbian indie rocker Devin (Stephanie Hunt) — a character who absolutely needs her own story arc if "Friday Night Lights" continues after this season — but the McCoy boys were Season 3's most prominent newbies. It's a shame that it wasn't until Episode 12 that freshman quarterback J.D. (Jeremy Sumpter) and evil rich pops Joe (D.W. Moffett) started to show some real life.

Before the holiday, "Friday Night Lights" ended with Joe punching his son. This week's episode opened with Tami being urged to report the child abuse to the state. Her initial hesitation seemed off — she's the principal, and she's always been by the book — but the call was made, and the fictional town of Dillon may never be the same again.

Reporting the McCoy abuse has potentially disastrous effects on Eric's career. All season long, "Friday Night Lights" has done a fine job of showing the gap between the middle and upper class. It's no secret that McCoy is the one pulling the strings, his money funding the football boosters and supplying a USC-trained football coach for his son's prized arm.

Even Buddy Garrity seems unable to fully stand up to Joe McCoy. When Joe speaks, it's usually in a straight monotone, and it's hard to tell if he's making a threat or just isn't all that interesting. It's also no secret that Joe has had it in for Eric from the beginning, inserting his pet trainer Wade onto the coach's staff when Coach Mac McGill (Blue Deckert) suffered a heart attack.

So when the Panthers make a stunning comeback in the state championship, taking a 28-27 lead on a trick play, there's only one person Joe McCoy has to blame, and that's Eric. The young J.D. is upset with Eric for following the law and reporting the abuse, and he shows it on the field, getting sacked and ranting and raving at his offensive line. That makes two episodes in a row that the puny-armed freshman has shown some fire, and an ability to break out of his dad's shadow.

It's nice that Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) almost saves the day, getting an opportunity once again to play quarterback. "Friday Night Lights" has been kind to its graduating class this season. Things worked out well — perhaps too well — for Smash and Street, and Saracen is on the verge of going to the Art Institute of Chicago. Even the perpetual good-boy screw-up Riggins is on the verge of going to college (San Antonio State).

Perhaps that's been the main weakness of the third season of "Friday Night Lights." With half the cast set to graduate from high school, there were episodes in which the show felt as if it was in a bit of a waiting period. The McCoy boys haven't been completely fleshed out, as the series has instead taken great pains to make sure each of its graduating students get a proper send-off. Indeed, when Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) and Landry (Jesse Plemons) eventually kiss, it's nice, but anticlimactic. At last! We can move on to other matters.

And this episode doesn't disappoint. The football game itself is masterfully designed, as the beloved Panthers take one hit after another. When the comeback begins, the team does it in short, quick plays, and the game feels real.

When Eric benches his young star in J.D., Joe's stare is hidden by sunglasses, but his angrily stoic stance says enough. J.D. screws up, sure, but Joe isn't going to blame his own attack. Instead, he's going to blame the man who called the cops.

A pitch-perfect speech from the coach after the game isn't going to save him in Joe's mind, but the look on Riggins' face is one of the star's finest moments of the season. He sits listening to coach, struggling not to smile, but it's clear he's relishing every moment of his final high school year, and he'll be dearly missed if the series continues.

Says Eric, "This is the game people are going to talk about for years to come. This is the game you're going to talk about." And here's hoping it's not the last one we get to see.

Best line: Early on, when Landry is helping Tyra with her college entrance essay, he sends her back to the laptop, criticizing that every paragraph somehow brings up her job at Applebee's. Replies Tyra, "It's a metaphor!"

— Todd Martens

Photo: Taylor Kitsch as Tim Riggins. Credit: DirecTV/NBC.

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